Throughout the story, Narayan intentionally contrasts the mix of ancient and modern, primitive and sophisticated that makes up modern India, particularly in the rural regions. Under British occupation, India was thrust into the modern world as the ruling class introduced technology and built infrastructure to suit their own tastes. Because of the speed at which this happened, as compared to the gradual progression of technology in Europe or America, much of the development happened unevenly, with old-world ideologies and methods mixing with new-world technologies and values in dynamic, asynchronous ways. Narayan uses ironic pairings of images to depict the ways in which Indian culture, built on ten thousand years of tradition, is synthesizing with a quickly changing technological world. Rather than argue that they directly contradict each other, he shows how they interweave into daily life.
Technology and modernization are signified by the presence of gaslights, cars, and notebooks in the marketplace. As these items help people literally function in the modern world, tradition and culture help the people to find their broader place in the world, offering answers to existential questions and creating the illusion that fate can be foretold and controlled. The astrologer sets up shop beneath the tamarind tree, which sits next to a road leading to the Town Hall Park. Narayan almost humorously contrasts the mystic teacher sitting beneath the tree against all the hallmarks of modern administration and democracy, pointing to the usefulness of both. Despite the modern organization of society, newfound technology, and the quickly changing aspects of daily life, the astrologer still has a lively trade. People still seek comfort in face of marital and financial strife, and even the illusion of significance and control is a valued commodity. Even though the people of the village would have understood that the cosmos spins around the sun, they were still comforted by knowing that their bad disposition was able to be explained on cosmological events, such as the current position of Saturn in the sky.
Modern of technology has begun to interpenetrate and even ironically enhance mysticism and the astrologer’s religious practice, rather than threatening to destroy it. The astrologer’s trade utilizes aspects of both modern convenience and old-world tradition. His “professional equipment” contains a medley of ritualistic items, such as cowrie shells and a mystically unreadable chart, as well as a simple notebook, perhaps for keeping records or remembering customers’ problems so that he can keep up his appearance of omniscience. The enchanting and mystical lighting of the marketplace is also only the result of gas lights and naked flares on torches, sputtering their chemical flames. Yet, ironically, if there were proper municipal lighting (the full extent of technological progress and administration), it is implied by the text that the marketplace would take on a more anti-septic quality and the astrologer’s work would be more difficult to convincingly sell. Although the marks of modernization are laced throughout the story, Narayan gives no indication that the astrologer’s trade is reaching the end of its day. Villagers are just as happy to pay their meager livings for some cosmic comfort, and poor, flickering light only helps to sell the image.
Modern development, happening at such an extreme rate, leaves many people economically behind, including the astrologer himself. A consequence of non-gradual technological progress is that inequality increases, evidence by the fact that, within the astrologer’s earshot, people are driving cars to work, (assumedly) spending their days in electrically-lit administrative offices. Narayan further demonstrates inequality by describing how, in the din of the crowd, the honking of car horns is listed alongside jutka (a two-wheeled carriage) drivers cursing their horses. Meanwhile, the astrologer himself does not have a shop or even a simple flare to light his work, borrowing the light of others and the shelter of a tree to do his business.
Yet the astrologer’s appeal is that he offers something timeless, a cultural anchor that has lasted millennia in the face of rapid changes and modernization. The astrologer is markedly poor—his wife is thrilled with the extra money he earns from Guru Nayak because she will be able to buy her daughter the small luxury of sweets—as are his clientele, shopping in such a marketplace. Economically unstable and watching the world change very quickly, the future would have felt incredibly uncertain. Being able to put some faith in wisdom gleaned from the orientation of the stars, which have been moving in the same way since the dawn of civilization, may have been a needed comfort.
Narayan’s depiction of the clash between the old world and the new in India does not fit into a simple framework. At times, the mysticism and religiosity that pervades Indian life is enhanced, sometimes ironically, by the presence of new technological development, and in such a quickly-changing landscape, the familiarity of ancient tradition is needed. At the same time, modernization is deepening the divides of economic inequality as the rich are now able to afford amenities and luxuries that create a massive qualitative difference in day to day life, which perhaps increasing the need for mysticism and meaning to unite the country across different social groups. Ancient tradition and religion, then, maybe be a means to help people stay connected to the social fabric of their country.
Modernization, Tradition, and Inequality ThemeTracker
Modernization, Tradition, and Inequality Quotes in An Astrologer’s Day
His forehead was resplendent with sacred ash and vermillion, and his eyes sparkled with a sharp abnormal gleam which was really an outcome of a continual searching look for customers, but which his simple clients took to be a prophetic light and felt comforted. The power of his eyes was considerably enhanced by their position—placed as they were between the painted forehead and dark whiskers which streamed down his cheeks: even a half-wit’s eyes would sparkle in such a setting.
To crown the effect he wrapped a saffron-colored turban around his head. This color scheme never failed. People were attracted to him as bees are attracted to cosmos or dahlia stalks. He sat under the boughs of a spreading tamarind tree which flanked a path running through the Town Hall Park.
Half the enchantment of the place was due to the fact that it did not have the benefit of municipal lighting. The place was lit up by shop lights. One or two had hissing gaslights, some had naked flares stuck on poles, some were lit up by old cycle lamps, and one or two, like the astrologer’s, managed without lights of their own. It was a bewildering crisscross of light rays and moving shadows.
He had a working analysis of mankind’s troubles: marriage, money, and the tangle of human ties. Long practice had sharpened his perception. Within five minutes he understood what was wrong. He charged three pies per question, never opened his mouth till the other had spoken for at least ten minutes, which provided him enough stuff for a dozen answers and advices. When he told a person before him gazing at his palm, “In many ways you are not getting the fullest results of for your efforts,” nine out of ten were disposed to agree with him […] Or he gave an analysis of character: “Most of your troubles are due to your nature. How can you be otherwise with Saturn where he is? You have an impetuous nature and a rough exterior.” This endeared him to their hearts immediately, for even the mildest of us loves to think he has a forbidding exterior.